In the brief period between 1774 and 1789 French literature produced some memorable works that still find readers and move minds: the Maximes of Chamfort, the Paul et Virginie of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, the Liaisons dangereuses of Choderlos de Laclos (of which we have said enough), and the chaotic but revealing volumes of Restif de La Bretonne.
These were islands erupting from a literary sea of schools, libraries, reading circles, lectures, newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, and books—such a froth and ferment of ink as the world had never known before. Only a small minority of the French people could read;72 nevertheless millions of them were thirsty for knowledge and bursting with ideas. Encyclopedias, compendiums of science, outlines of knowledge, were in wide demand. The philosophes and the reformers were investing high hopes in the spread of education.
Though the Jesuits were gone and the schools were now controlled by the state, most of the teaching was still in the hands of the clergy. The universities, rigidly orthodox in religion and politics, had fallen into torpor and disrepute, and were only beginning, at the end of the century, to notice the sciences. But public lectures on science were eagerly attended, and technical schools were multiplying. In the colleges nearly all the students were of the middle class; young nobles went rather to one or another of the twelve military academies that Saint-Germain had set up in or after 1776. (In one of these, at Brienne, Napoleon Bonaparte was studying.) College students, we are told, “frequently formed organizations to support political demonstrations”;73 and as there were at this time more college graduates than the French economy could use, the placeless ones became voices of discontent; such men wrote pamphlets that stoked the fires of revolt.
The rich had private libraries, enviably housed, of books luxuriously bound and sometimes read. The middle and lower classes used circulating libraries, or bought their books—nearly all paperbacks—from stalls or stores. In 1774 the sale of books in Paris was estimated to be four times that of much more populous London.74 Restif de La Bretonne reported that reading had made the workers of Paris “intractable.”75
Newspapers were growing in number, size, and influence. The old Gazette de France, established in 1631, was still the official—and distrusted—purveyor of political news. The Mercure de France, which had begun in 1672 as the Mercure galant, had in 1790 a circulation of thirteen thousand copies, which was thought excellent; Mirabeau called it the ablest of the French newspapers.76 The Journal de Farts, the first French daily, began publication in 1777; the more famous Moniteur did not appear till November 24, 1789. There were many provincial newspapers, like the Courier de Provence, which was edited by Mirabeau fils.
Pamphlets were an inundation that finally swept everything before them. In the last months of 1788 some 2,500 were published in France.77 Some had historic effect, like the Abbé Sieyès’ Qu’est-ce que le Tiers-état? or Camille Desmoulins’ La France libre. By July, 1789, the press was the strongest force in France. Necker described it, in 1784, as “an invisible power which, though without wealth, without weapons, and without an army, dictates alike to town and court, and even in the palaces of kings.”78 Songs played a part in the agitation; Chamfort called the government a monarchy limited by popular airs.79
Chamfort himself was snatched up into the revolutionary current, and passed from being persona grata at court to taking part in storming the Bastille. Born the son of a village grocer (1741), he came to Paris and lived on his wits and wit. Women housed and fed him merely to have the stimulus of his conversation. He wrote several dramas, one of which, performed at Fontainebleau, so pleased Marie Antoinette that she persuaded the King to give him a pension of twelve hundred livres. He was made secretary to a sister of Louis XVI, and received an additional two thousand livres a year. Everything seemed to bind him to the royal cause, but in 1783 he met Mirabeau, and was soon changed into a caustic critic of the government. It was he who gave Sieyès the catching title for his famous pamphlet.
Meanwhile, inspired by La Rochefoucauld, Vauvenargues, and Voltaire, he jotted down “maxims” expressing his sardonic view of the world. Mme. Helvétius, who for years kept him as a house guest at Sèvres, said, “Whenever I had a conversation with Chamfort in the morning, I was saddened for the rest of the day.”80 He thought life a hoax upon hope. “Hope is a charlatan that always deceives us; and as for myself, my happiness began only when I abandoned hope.”81 “If the cruel truths, the sad discoveries, the secrets of society, which compose the knowledge of a man of the world who has reached the age of forty, had been known to this same man at the age of twenty, either he would have fallen into despair or he would have deliberately become corrupt.”82Coming at the end of the Age of Reason, Chamfort laughed at reason as less a master of passion than a tool of evil. “Man, in the actual state of society, seems more corrupted by his reason than by his passions.”83 As for women, “whatever evil a man can think of them, there is no woman who does not think still worse of them than he does.”84 Marriage is a snare. “Marriage and celibacy are both of them troublesome; we should prefer that one whose inconveniences are not without remedy.”85 “Women give to friendship only what they borrow from love,”86 and “love, such as it exists in society, is nothing but an exchange of fantasies and the contact of two skins [contact de deux épidermes] .”87
When Chamfort stepped out of palaces and mansions into the streets of Paris his pessimism was intensified. “Paris, city of amusement and pleasure, where four fifths of the people die of grief, … a place that stinks and where no one loves.”88 The only cure for these slums would be childlessness. “It is unfortunate for mankind, fortunate for tyrants, that the poor and miserable do not have the instinct or pride of the elephant, who does not reproduce in captivity.”89
Chamfort at times indulged in an ideal. “It is necessary to unite contraries: the love of virtue with indifference to public opinion; the taste for work with indifference to fame; and the care of one’s health with indifference to life.”90 For some years he thought to give meaning to life by dedicating himself to revolution, but five years of dealing with Mirabeau, Danton, Marat, and Robespierre regenerated his despair. It seemed to him then that the Revolutionary motto “Liberty, equality, fraternity” had come to mean “Be my brother or I’ll kill you.”91 He cast in his lot with the Girondins, and lashed the more radical leaders with his reckless wit. He was arrested, but was soon released. Threatened again with arrest, he shot and stabbed himself. He lingered till April 13, 1794, and died after saying to Sieyès, “I go at last out of this world, where the heart must break or make itself bronze [Je m’en vais enfin de ce monde, où il faut que le cœur se brise ou se bronze |.”92
If the influence of Voltaire predominated in Chamfort, that of Rousseau was complete and avowed in Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. At the age of thirty-one (1768) he went as an engineer on a governmental commission to the He de France, now called Mauritius. In that mountainous, rainy, fruitful island he found what he thought was Rousseau’s “state of nature”—men and women living close to the earth and free from the vices of civilization. Returning to France (1771), he became a devoted friend of Jean-Jacques, learned to tolerate his tantrums, and to think of him as another saviour for mankind. In a Voyage à l’Île de France (1773) he described the simple life and sustaining religious faith of the island’s population. The bishop of Aix saw in this book a wholesome reaction against Voltaire, and secured for the author a royal pension of a thousand livres. Bernardin responded with Études de la nature (1784) and Les Harmonies de la nature (1796), in which he described the wonders of plant and animal life, and argued that the many instances of apparent adaptation, purpose, and design prove the existence of a supreme intelligence. He went beyond Rousseau in exalting feeling above reason. “The further reason advances, the more it brings us evidence of our nothingness; and far from calming our sorrows by its researches, it often increases them by its light. … But feeling … gives us a sublime impulsion, and in subjugating our reason it becomes the noblest and most gratifying instinct in human life.”93
To a second edition of the Etudes (1788) Bernardin appended a romance, Paul et Virginie, which has remained a classic of French literature through a dozen shifts of taste. Two pregnant Frenchwomen come to Mauritius, one whose husband has died, the other whose lover has deserted her. One gives birth to Paul, the other to Virginie. The children grow up in a mountain valley, amid majestic scenery scented with natural flowers. Their morals are formed by maternal devotion and religious teaching. As soon as they reach puberty they fall in love with each other—no one else being around. Virginie is sent to France to collect an inheritance—which does not often happen in a state of nature. She is offered marriage and great fortune if she will stay in France, but she rejects them to return to Mauritius and Paul. He runs down to the shore to see her ship approaching; he is overjoyed with thoughts of love and happiness; but the vessel runs into shallows, is grounded, and is shattered by a storm; Virginie is drowned in trying to reach the shore. Paul dies of grief.
The little book is a prose poem, told with a simplicity of style and a purity and music of language nowhere surpassed in French literature. Its piety and sentiment fell in with the mood of the time, and no one was disturbed by the fact that these virtuous women and children had slaves.94 Bernardin was hailed as the authentic successor of Rousseau; women wrote to him in the same tone of devout admiration with which they had comforted the author of Émile. Like him, Bernardin did not take advantage of his fame; he shunned society, and lived quietly among the poor. The Revolution left him unharmed. Amid its violence he married, at fifty-five, Félicité Didot, aged twenty-two; she gave him two children, who were named Paul and Virginie. After Félicité’s death he married again, at sixty-three, a young woman, Désirée de Pellepou, who took care of him lovingly till his death in 1814. Before he departed he saw the rise of Chateaubriand, who took the torch of French romanticism and piety from his hands, and carried it into the nineteenth century.
There were in this age some minor books which are no longer read, but which shared in giving voice and color to the time. Abbé Jean-Jacques Barthélemy published at the age of seventy-two (1788), after working on it for thirty years, Voyage du jeune Anacharsis en Grèce, which purported to describe the physical appearance, the antiquities, institutions, customs, and coins of Greece in the fourth century before Christ, as seen by a Scythian traveler; it came on the crest of the classic wave, and was one of the outstanding literary successes of the age. It almost established the science of numismatics in France.
Its popularity was rivaled by Les Ruines, ou Méditations sur les révolutions des empires, which Comte Constantin de Volney issued in 1791 after four years of travel in Egypt and Syria. Seeing the shattered remnants of ancient civilizations, he asked, “Who can assure us that a like desolation will not one day be the lot of our country?” We should now hesitate to give an optimistic answer to this question, but Volney, cqming at the close of the Age of Reason, and inheriting, like Condorcet, all its hopes for mankind,informed his readers that the collapse of those old empires had been due to the ignorance of their peoples, and that this had been due to the difficulty of transmitting knowledge from man to man and from generation to generation. But now these difficulties had been overcome by the invention of printing. All that is needed henceforth to avert the ruin of civilization is the wide dissemination of knowledge, which leads men and states to reconcile their unsocial impulses with the common good. In this equilibrium of forces war will give way to arbitration, and “the whole species will become one great society, a single family governed by the same spirit and by common laws, enjoying all the felicity of which human nature is capable.”95
We come to the incredible career of Nicolas-Edme Restif de La Bretonne, called, by some contemporaries, “the Rousseau of the gutter” and “the Voltaire of the chambermaids”; author of some two hundred volumes, many of them printed by his own hand and press, some deliberately pornographic, all constituting a detailed picture of the morals and manners of the lower classes in the reign of Louis XVI.
In La Vie de mon père (1779) he gave a tenderly idealized account of his father, Edmond, whom he remembered as having “the air of a Hercules and the gentleness of a girl.”96 The son recorded his own life in sixteen meandering volumes entitled Monsieur Nicolas (1794-97), fact and fiction about his vicissitudes, amours, and ideas. He was born in a farmhouse (1737) in Sacy (one section of which was called La Bretonne), twenty miles from Auxerre. At the age of eleven, he assures us, he first became a father.97 At fourteen he fell in love with Jeannette Rousseau, seventeen, and began his lifelong adoration of female feet. “My feeling for her was as pure and tender as it was intense. … Her pretty foot was irresistible to me.”98 Perhaps to disengage him from such entanglements he was sent to Auxerre (1751) to serve as apprentice to a printer. He soon seduced his master’s wife; but for this he is the sole authority. By the age of fifteen, he tells us, he had had fifteen “mistresses.” After four years of this pursuit he moved to Paris; there he was employed as a journeyman printer, earning two and a half francs a day, which enabled him to eat, and to pay for an occasional prostitute; sometimes, when his funds were low, he slept with charcoal women.99 In 1760, aged twenty-six, he married a woman almost as experienced as himself, Agnès Lebèque; each proved unfaithful. They were divorced in 1784, not because of these peccadilloes, but because both had fallen into authorship, and they were competing for paper, ink, and fame.
Nicolas had begun his career as a writer in 1767, with Le Pied de Fanchette, in which the pièce de résistance was the lass’s foot. His first literary success was Le Paysan perverti (1775). It tells in letter form how the peasant Edmond, moving to Paris, is perverted by city life and irreligion. A freethinker, Gaudit d’Arras, teaches him that God is a myth and morality a sham, that all pleasures are legitimate, thar virtue is an unwarranted imposition upon the natural rights of our desires, and that our prime obligation is to live as fully as possible.100 Arras is arrested; Edmond tells him, “There is a God”; Arras is hanged impenitent. One contemporary called the book “the Liaisons dangereuses of the people”;101 Restif thought it would live as long as the French language.102 In a companion volume, La Paysanne pervertie (1784), he continued his attack upon amoralism and the corruptions of city life. He used his royalties to raise himself a notch or two on the social scale of adultery.
Restif s most significant work was Les Contemporaines, which ran to sixty-five volumes (1780-91). These short stories had an attractive subtitle: “Aventures des plus jolies femmes de l’âge présent”—the lives, loves, and manners of flower girls, chestnut sellers, charcoal vendors, seamstresses, hairdressers, described so realistically and accurately that actual persons recognized themselves, and cursed the author when they met him in the streets.103 Not till Balzac was so large a panorama of human life presented in French literature. Critics condemned Restif’s addiction to “low subjects,” but Sébastien Mercier, whose Tableau de Paris (1781-90) was offering a more systematic survey of the city, pronounced him “incontestably our greatest novelist.”104
Just before the Revolution Restif began to record, in Les Nuits de Paris (1788-94), the incidents that he witnessed (or imagined) on his nightly walks. Again he noted chiefly the lower depths of Paris—beggars, porters, pickpockets, smugglers, gamblers, drunkards, kidnapers, thieves, deviates, prostitutes, pimps, and suicides. He claimed to have seen little happiness, much misery, and he pictured himself as in many cases a rescuing hero. He visited the cafés near the Palais-Royal, and saw the Revolution taking form; he heard Camille Desmoulins’ famous call to arms; saw the victorious mob parading the severed head of de Launay, warden of the Bastille; saw the women marching to capture the King at Versailles.105 Soon he tired of the violence, the terror, the insecurity of life. He was several times in danger of arrest, but escaped by professions of revolutionary faith. Privately he denounced it all, and wished that “good Louis XVI could be restored to power.”106 He berated Rousseau for having unleashed the passions of the young, the ignorant, and the sentimental. “It is Émile that has brought us this arrogant generation, stubborn and insolent and willful, which speaks loudly, and silences the elderly.”107
So he grew old, and repented the ideas, but not the sins, of his youth. In 1794 he was again a poor man, rich only in memories and grandchildren. He drew up in Volume XIII of Monsieur Nicolas a calendrier of the men and women in his life, including several hundred paramours, and he reaffirmed his belief in God. In 1800 the Comtesse de Beauharnais told Napoleon that Restif was living in poverty, without heat in his room; Napoleon sent him money, a servant, and a guard, and (1805) gave him a place in the ministry of police. On February 8, 1806, Restif died, aged seventy-two. The Countess and several members of the Institute de France (which had refused him admission) joined the eighteen hundred commoners who followed his funeral.